Scientists in British labs have created over 150 human-animal hybrid embryos in the past three years, which has caused concern that led to a call for major oversight from the Academy of Medical Sciences over animals containing human materials (ACHM).
In 2007, licenses from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) were granted to three labs in the UK – King’s College London, Newcastle University and Warwick University – to create hybrid embryos, or cytoplasmic hybrids. Scientists claimed that they were working toward creating stem cells that could be used to study a number of diseases and disorders, such as HIV, cancer, infertility, Alzheimers and hepatitis, among others.
Since then “a variety of hybrids, including an animal egg fertilised by a human sperm; ‘cybrids’, in which a human nucleus is implanted into an animal cell; and ‘chimeras’, in which human cells are mixed with animal embryos” have been created, reports the Daily Mail.
By law, embryos containing mostly human material have to be destroyed after 14 days, but there is no regulation for those containing mostly animal material. Concerns have also been raised over inserting human genetic material into animals to create a humanized animal model.
Human liver cells in mice, single human gene implantation, pigs with human blood, mice with human brain cells, and, of course, that unforgettable mouse with the human ear growing off of its back. Hybrid experimentation is nothing new, monkey organs grown in sheep, glowing monkeys with jellyfish DNA, but it is cause for serious ethical debate. The creation of chimeras, not the same as hybrids, has been banned in Canada, but there is no federal oversight in the U.S.
In its report, Animals Containing Human Material, the academy acknowledged the fast moving pace of science and use of ACHM, but raised concerns over this type of research growing and extending to areas that surpass current regulatory and ethical boundaries, stating:
Experiments that were of concern to both the public and scientific community focus on research studies involving modification of the animal brain that could potentially lead to human-like ‘cerebral’ function, experiments that might lead to fertilization of human eggs or sperm in an animal; and modification of an animal to create characteristics perceived as uniquely human, such as facial shape, skin texture or speech.
The report also calls for a three-tiered approach to experiments, the first would include animal experiments taking place under current regulations, the second category would include experiments “subject to scrutiny” by the panel of recommended experts and the last would include experiments that should not be allowed “at least until the potential consequences are more fully understood.” No one is, however, currently aware of anything that would fall into the last category.
“The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human… speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us,” said Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences in the Telegraph.
“These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction we need to start thinking about now.”
Many examining the issue are drawing comparisons to Frankenstein, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the Island of Dr. Moreau. The issues being broached will not go away or become more simplified, but become more complicated as science advances.
Questions are raised about what, exactly, an animal with human tissues is. Should it have rights? Does creating chimeras diminish human dignity? Is crossing the species barrier morally wrong? Is the confused and uncomfortable feeling that many have over the subject enough to indicate the line is being crossed? Will it be too late by the time anyone realizes the implications of what’s been done? Do animals have the right to live without having their integrity violated?
Lord Alton, likened it to “dabbling in the grotesque.”
‘I argued in Parliament against the creation of human- animal hybrids as a matter of principle. None of the scientists who appeared before us could give us any justification in terms of treatment,” he said.
“At every stage the justification from scientists has been: if only you allow us to do this, we will find cures for every illness known to mankind. This is emotional blackmail.Of the 80 treatments and cures which have come about from stem cells, all have come from adult stem cells – not embryonic ones.”
The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) has called for a moratorium on genetically modified animals in response to the report, noting that many animals “suffer due to the painful and debilitating conditions” that result as a part of genetic modification.
“In our submission to the Government on implementing its promised strategy to reduce animal experiments, we have proposed a moratorium on the genetic modification of animals. The AMS statement demonstrates that even researchers feel uneasy when animals are genetically modified to ‘humanise’ them. This modification is also an acknowledgment that animals are an unreliable guide to human physiology. We need to move beyond the outdated animal ‘model’ and take a lead in research with human scientific alternatives,” said Buav Chief Executive Michelle Thew.
Photo credit: audrey sel via flickr